Refreshing and Soothing Chickweed

Nothing says spring as much as baby chicks hatching on the farm. Every year, I think they are even cuter than last year’s chicks. In addition to the organic chick feed at Ozark Natural Feeds, I make sure my chicks get some fresh foods too. I find worms and wild plants for them to eat. They are happy with clumps of grass and wild clover, but they particularly love chickweed.

Gabbie and her brood enjoying chickweed

Gabbie and her brood enjoying chickweed

Chickweed is a common herb to find in your yard or garden at this time of the year. Look around for it because you might love it as much as my chickens do. Chickweed has a taste that might remind you of spinach, and it is a great addition to salads. Chickweed is highly nutritious and is considered to be a rejuvenating spring tonic.

Chickweed

Chickweed

In addition to being a great addition to the diet, chickweed is a medicinal herb that is used for soothing skin and mucous membranes such as the respiratory, digestive and urinary tracts. A chickweed tea can be used for coughs and hoarseness. It is also a mild diuretic that might be useful for urinary irritation. Chickweed is most famous for it topical uses since it can speed wound healing, reduce itching, and cool inflamed skin. It is used for everything from burns and cuts to eczema and hemorrhoids.

You can use the fresh plant to make a poultice by simply crushing the leaves and stalks and applying them directly to the skin. Ideally, cover this herbal concoction with a clean cloth to hold it in place. If using dried chickweed, grind it until it is nearly a powder then add enough hot water to make a paste. You can also make a healing chickweed salve for use all year long. Just in a Pinch Recipes has two recipes for chickweed salve. Their Itchy Salve recipe looks great.

More on Oil Pulling

When I first heard about oil pulling, I thought it sounded weird. I didn’t try it until my mother in law, who is a dental hygienist, told me that she had seen a patient with particularly healthy gums. When she asked that patient what she was doing to keep her gums in such good shape, the answer was oil pulling.

So now, I’ve been doing it regularly after flossing and before brushing my teeth. I use a heaping teaspoon to a tablespoon of coconut oil and swish it in my mouth for 20 minutes. I take breaks from the swishing where I am just holding the oil in my mouth. I sometimes gargle with the oil before spitting it out. Don’t spit it into your sink or you might clog your pipes.

I chose coconut oil because I like the taste of it, and coconut oil has antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral benefits. Other oils to consider using are sesame, olive, grapeseed, and sunflower. Sesame and coconut have both been shown to fight Streptococcus mutans, the main bacteria that can cause cavities. You can boost these benefits by adding a drop or two of an essential oil or essential oil blend to your main oil. Good ones to experiment with are tea tree, eucalyptus, peppermint, and oregano. Since I am putting them in mouth, I make sure to use a brand that makes high quality pure essential oils.

Fresh coconuts

Fresh coconuts

There are a lot of claims out there about the benefits of oil pulling from clearing up sinus problems to psoriasis as well as the obvious improvements in oral health. There are a number of small studies demonstrating that oil pulling can improve breath and reduce plaque and plaque-induced gingivitis. A lot of people are also reporting that their teeth are whiter from oil pulling.

Now for the other claims, we only have anecdotes to support them, but there is a possible logical underpinning. Nearly every chronic condition is driving by inflammation, whether it is heart disease or dementia or acne or psoriasis. When we have gum disease, we add another source of inflammation that fuel theses other disease process. By improving oral health, we remove part of the obstacle that is in the way of our healing.

And there might be some additional benefit from having to breath through your nose for 20 minutes. I find oil pulling to be a soothing activity.

Some of the things I have heard about oil pulling I can’t substantial. Some people claim it will cure a hangover. I haven’t done that experiment and can’t figure out how it would help but would love to hear about other people’s experiences.

I have also heard that it is better to do it in the morning. A friend of mine said that her teeth started getting whiter when she switched to doing oil pulling in the morning. If you have any ideas on why this would be the case, let me know.

Why Try Oil Pulling?

Why is oil pulling is popular right now? I think it is because it catches people’s attention because it is a little usual, but when they try it they start seeing results right away, often within a week.

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Here is a link to a story I did for the local news on oil pulling yesterday:

http://www.nwahomepage.com/fulltext-news/d/story/latest-trend-oil-pulling/12915/9zffTSRACUCCB0H7g3-9NQ

Look for a longer blog later in the week for more details on oil pulling, but in the mean time give it a try. Grab a spoonful of coconut, sesame, olive, or grapeseed oil and swish it in your mouth for 20 minutes.

 

Sleep Tight, Think Right: The link between insomnia and Alzheimer’s disease

I love to sleep and will sleep nine hours a night if I can. Maybe to justify this indulgence, I pay attention to research on the benefits of sleep and recent studies are showing that sleep deprivation likely contributes to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. So maybe my eight to nine hours of sleep is more like a necessity than an indulgence.

It turns out that sleep is the brain’s cleaning cycle, according to these recent studies. We have long known that sleep helps us form new memories and that lack of sleep can decrease our ability to concentrate and learn new things. But these new studies have demonstrated that if we are chronically sleep deprived, our brains build up junk that it is correlated with dementia and some other age related memory issues. Evidently, part of the reason we sleep is so the brain can divert its energy to cleaning up the debris that results for our day of mental aerobics. In a study using mice, the sleep-deprived mice has impaired memory compared to the normal mice and their brains showed accumulation of proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease. So if we don’t get enough sleep we are aging our brains faster and putting ourselves at risk for neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. If you want to read more details on this new insight, check out this recent New York Times article.

With 80% Americans getting an insufficient amount of sleep, this increased risk for dementia has to potential to be to a serious health crisis. Some people are choosing to sleep less because they are trying to fit more into their busy lives. I have told hundreds of my patients that they need to set themselves an earlier bedtime so they can make sleep a bigger priority. I will even have them set an alarm to help them remember to start their before bed rituals so they will get to bed early enough.

Passionflower

Passionflower

Others want to get their health restoring sleep but are suffering from insomnia. For this group, there are many natural strategies that may help. Often I have patients start by taking some magnesium at bedtime. Magnesium deficiency can contribute to sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, irritability, and muscle cramps. If this isn’t enough, I might add a calming herb like passionflower or California poppy. Others might benefit from taking the amino acid tryptophan shortly before bed to help them make more melatonin, the sleep hormone. Finally, consider a bedtime snack to keep your blood sugar steady through the night and make sure you have a very dark bedroom.

There are many other health benefits to getting a good night’s sleep. If you need more reasons, read my blogs on the connection between insomnia and blood sugar and the link between stress and sleep deprivation.

Parkinson’s Prevention: The roles of antioxidants, iron, and pesticides

I remember telling my first patient with Parkinson’s disease that she needed to move because she lived in a subdivision that was built on an old landfill. Not only was she suffering, but she also reported that an unusual number of her neighbors had cancer or other very serious diseases that may be linked to toxins. It is thought that in Parkinson’s disease the destruction of brain cells occurs partially due to oxidative damage, which is increased by toxic chemicals. The subsequent reduced ability to produce dopamine in the brain leads to the motor deficits of Parkinson’s including resting tremors, rigidity, slow movements, and shuffling gait.

While there are natural treatments that can slow and/or improve the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, we are much better off focusing on prevention. New studies are pointing to some easy steps to help reduce the chance of getting this neurodegenerative illness. The link between exposure to pesticides and the development of Parkinson’s disease was confirmed by a 2013 meta-analysis looking at over 100 studies. It showed that the risk of Parkinson’s was increased by contact with pesticides, herbicides, and solvents. Farming in general and living in rural areas were also considered to be risks. As a small scale organic farmer as well as a naturopathic doctor, these issues particularly strike home. I recommend an emphasis on organic foods in the diet to avoid traces of pesticide residue on the food and to cut down on the number of farm workers who have to handle pesticides and herbicides.

Another common thread in Parkinson’s disease is elevated iron in the brain. Iron can contribute to oxidative damage by catalyzing the conversion of hydrogen peroxide to dangerous hydroxyl free radicals. Pesticides and other neurotoxic substances have been shown to cause increased production of hydrogen peroxide. The resulting reactive oxygen species can damage the genes, cell membranes, and mitochondria thereby reducing the ability of brain cells to function.

These findings tie together much of what we know concerning the development of Parkinson’s disease: oxidative damage, iron overload in the brain, and pesticide exposure. It also points to useful preventative strategies. Cultures that consume vegan or quasi vegan diets have lower rates of Parkinson’s disease. While this could be due to lower intake of saturated fats or higher antioxidant consumption, I suggest that this link is partially because of lower iron intake. Part of the neuroprotective effect of coffee could be related to its ability to bind iron. This would also explain why the consumption of black tea, which reduces iron absorption, is inversely associated with Parkinson’s disease risk.

Finally, just as antioxidants are an indispensable part of the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, they can also be vital for its prevention since many of the implicated pesticides and other toxic compounds are oxidative stressors. Studies have shown that patients with Parkinson’s disease have reduced antioxidant capacity, demonstrated by lower glutathione levels. Glutathione is an important antioxidant that helps neutralize toxins and heavy metals. N-acetyl cysteine and alpha lipoic acid are excellent supplement choices to help build up glutathione levels. Turmeric is known for its neuroprotective effects, and its active constituent curcumin was shown to help restore glutathione levels in a study using mice. At the same time, I encourage appropriate intake of iron to minimize buildup over time with its subsequent contribution to oxidative stress.

Even though these interventions were particularly studied for Parkinson’s disease, these basic concepts hold true for prevention of other neurological issues. Toxin burdens and decreased antioxidant status are important considerations for prevention of other neurological conditions, including some dementias like Alzheimer’s disease.  Though genetics can play a role in susceptibility to particular conditions, we can choose dietary and lifestyle choices that reduce the likelihood of these manifestations. In addition, we can also work to create a healthier planet so that there are fewer toxic chemicals in all of our lives.

Pepper Smile

And check out my blog from last year on how happy bell peppers like this one can help prevent Parkinson’s disease.

What is the Difference Between Probiotics and Prebiotics?

We have billions of microorganisms living in our guts, and having the right organisms in our bodies can have a powerful effect on our overall health. Imbalanced gut flora is common due to antibiotics, disease, stress, or diets high in meat and saturated fats. The wrong population of bacteria in our guts can contribute to digestive distress, but they can also contribute to less obvious issues. An imbalance of gut bacteria can deactivate digestive enzymes, stimulate dysfunctional immune responses, activate carcinogens, and contribute to migraines. On the other hand, beneficial bacteria help optimize digestion, stimulate immune function, improve the intestinal barrier, and prevent colonization of the gut by pathogens. In addition, they can break down certain toxins and synthesize some of our vitamins like vitamin K. Beneficial bacteria may also help prevent colon cancer by lowering intestinal pH.

Probiotics are normal, healthy bacteria that inhabit the gastrointestinal tract. These are the organisms like the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria species you see in most probiotic supplements used to restore and repopulate normal intestinal flora. Some of my favorite probiotic supplements also include prebiotics. These are medium length carbohydrates that feed our good bacteria. The most common prebiotic in supplements is fructooligosaccharide, also know as FOS. Food sources of prebiotics like FOS include garlic, beans, carrots, onions, honey, beer, rye, asparagus, banana, maple sugar, oats, and my favorite Jerusalem artichoke. Eating high fiber foods is another way to support proper gut bacteria. So feed your good bacteria so they can in turn support your health.

Garlic

Save American Ginseng: Save Yourself

A new show on the History channel, Appalachian Outlaws, highlights the politics of one of this region’s most valuable herbs, American ginseng. Many of us here in the Ozarks also have a personal attachment to this medicinal plant. A good friend of mine had the ginseng patch he had nurtured for over 20 years decimated by poachers looking to make quick cash by illegally harvesting his ginseng out of season. On top of trespassing and stealing, poachers like these are endangering future ginseng harvests. There is a ginseng season, legally mandated by the state, to ensure the ginseng plants have mature seeds that can be planted in place of the roots that are harvested. My husband’s great uncle, Lloyd Brisco, taught my husband how to ethically hunt ginseng or as he called it “sang.” Since we use the roots of ginseng, the plant is killed during harvest so either the smaller roots need to be replanted or the seeds placed in the hole left by pulling the roots. Ethical wildcrafters also don’t take every single plant. Ideally, you only harvest 1 out of every 20 plants.

Lloyd Brisco geared up to hunt "sang"

Lloyd Brisco geared up to hunt “sang”

American ginseng is in such demand because it is one of the true longevity herbs. American and Korean ginseng are both known to compensate for the impact of stress on the body. They do this by modulating our cortisol levels. Ginseng can reduce elevated cortisol, which is implicated in many chronic health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity. By reducing the impact of stress, American ginseng can improve digestion and immune function. American ginseng can also help symptoms related to insufficient cortisol due to prolonged stress like fatigue and some types of depression. I find that it gives me more stamina and helps me work long days in the office and on the farm.  American ginseng is also a nootropic herb that helps enhances cognitive function and memory.

American ginseng is so monetarily valuable because it has these amazing medicinal benefits but takes a long time to grow and grows best in the wild. A lot of our American ginseng is exported to China and wholesale prices are on the rise, but people looking to make quick cash off the high demand for ginseng are putting this native treasure at risk. Local herb enthusiast, Madison Woods, has published a short book on Sustainable Ginseng available online as a paperback or ebook that can help people who want to grow wild-simulated ginseng on their own property. She also offers ginseng habit consultations where she personally helps you find the right wooded areas to plant ginseng for future harvest or preservation purposes. So let’s do what we can to protect this local jewel so we can continue to benefit from it for generations.

American Ginseng

American Ginseng

How to Make Elderberry Syrup

Last week, I wrote about natural tips for preventing the flu. Elderberries were one of the items I highlighted because they taste delicious and are safe for nearly every age group. I have trouble getting my husband to use some of the remedies I use personally like Echinacea tincture and oregano oil, but he is happy to take elderberry syrup. Elderberries have been shown to directly reduce the rate that the influenza virus can replicate. We both notice that it seems to immediately make us feel a little better when we are fighting a cold or flu. Allergy sufferers also report that elderberry syrup eases their symptoms.

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I have been making elderberry syrup for years now. I make it from either fresh or dried elderberries and various sweeteners. I don’t even normally use a recipe because you can hardly go wrong. I just taste it to see if I have sweetened and concentrated the syrup enough. For my last version, I used xylitol as the sweetener since this is a natural sugar alternative that won’t raise blood sugar and can help prevent some bacteria infections, especially ear infections. I usually make very large batches and freeze the extra so I have it on hand to defrost whenever we need it. In the summer, I will harvest the fresh elderberries and make syrup out of them right away. At this time of year, we only have dried elderberries available, so this recipe will use them. For fresh elderberries, you can cut the water in half.

 

Dried Elderberries

Dried Elderberries

Simple Elderberry Syrup

½ cup dried elderberries

6 cups of water

¼-½ cup xylitol or sweetener of your choice

Combine ingredients in a saucepan and bring them to a boil. Simmer on low for an hour, stirring occasionally. Let it cool down enough to handle. You can strain it through a fine mesh sieve. I prefer to put to then put the berries into a jelly bag or nut milk bag so that I can squeeze the residual juice out of the berries.

(Some times I then take those berries and cook them down a separate time with more water and sweetener to get the remaining goodness out of them. This makes a less concentrated syrup, so I just label it differently so I remember to use twice as much of it.)

I take 1-2 Tablespoons up to 5-6 times a day when I am really feeling bad. For prevention, I might take it once or twice a day.

Natural Flu Prevention

This seems to be shaping up to be a particularly bad flu season. So far, nearly forty people have died of influenza here in Arkansas. My husband recently had a mild case himself, and it made me think I should share what I did to prevent myself from getting it. These interventions can also help prevent colds and other upper respiratory infections and reduce the severity of a cold or flu if you come down with one.

Astragalus

Astragalus

When the cold and flu season starts, I begin taking astragalus, which has been shown to boost the immune system especially when taken long term. That is why I start it at the beginning of flu season, so I get the full immune benefits. But it is worth starting at anytime since astragalus also has a mild antiviral activity. Astragalus also helps with the body compensate for stress and reduces cortisol, which has been shown to suppress immune function. In addition, astragalus can help increase stamina. Because of this combination of immune and energy benefits, I choose astragalus over Echinacea for the flu season. I still use Echinacea sometimes, especially if my preventative strategies haven’t been enough and I start to feel a cold or flu coming on.

Another lesser-known immune booster is larch arabinogalactan. These are polysaccharides derived from the larch tree. Polysaccharides are the immune stimulating compounds in many of the best-known immune herbs like Echinacea and aloe. In addition to supporting the immune system, larch arabinogalactan can help with inflammation and joint pain. I also like larch arabinogalactan because it is a mild tasting powder that is safe to for children.

In addition to an immune booster, I take my daily fish oil and vitamin D. Fish oil and vitamin D are again obvious choices because of their multiple health benefits. The polyunsaturated fatty acids in fish oil help with optimal immune function, while also supporting mood, fighting inflammation and helping prevent heart disease. Vitamin D has been shown in numerous studies to help reduce rates of influenza. People who are deficient in vitamin D are much more likely to get the flu. In fact, lack of vitamin D production from sunlight is possibly one of the reasons the flu season is at this time of the year. If you already have adequate vitamin D levels, taking more vitamin D isn’t necessarily helpful. In fact, excess vitamin D might slightly increase the rate of influenza.

Elderberry

Elderberry

I always keep elderberry syrup in my house, and when my husband or I start feeling sick, this what we reach for. Elderberries have been shown in test tube studies to reduce the rate of influenza virus replication. Studies have also shown it to reduce the severity and duration of flu symptoms. In one study, 87% of the people taking elderberry had nearly complete resolution of symptoms in 3 days, while only 33% of those given the placebo felt as good at that point.

There are many other herbs and supplements that I could write about to help fight the flu, but lifestyle considerations are even more important. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to reduce stress, get adequate sleep, and allow yourself extra rest when you feel like you need it. When our stress goes up, so does our cortisol, which as I mentioned suppresses the immune system. Additionally, inadequate sleep hampers our immune system partially through causing elevated cortisol output. So get 8-9 hours of sleep a night and establish stress management techniques like deep breathing, exercise, yoga or meditation so that every day stress won’t leave you more susceptible to the flu.

Natural Pain and Fever Reducers to Replace Acetaminophen

Recently, the FDA recommended that doctors limit the amount they prescribe of acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol and some other pain reducers. They stated that taking more that 325 mg of acetaminophen per dose didn’t outweigh the added risk for damage to the liver. Liver injury has occurred in patients who took more than the prescribed amount of acetaminophen in 24 hours, took more than one product containing acetaminophen, or drank alcohol while taking acetaminophen. The harm to the liver by acetaminophen is greatly increased by alcohol, which slows down the rate that the liver can neutralize acetaminophen.

Since this is just one of the many negative reports about acetaminophen in recent years, it is time we looked for alternative to help us manage without acetaminophen or reduce the amount that is needed. We can’t necessarily take a combination of acetaminophen and non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin or ibuprofen, as these medications also slow down the detoxification of acetaminophen by the liver.

The two main actions of acetaminophen are to help reduce fever and pain. Some natural alternative to help reduce fevers are herbs like white willow, gotu kola, and to some a milder extent, peppermint. Additionally, we can choose herbs that induce sweating and in turn can help break a fever. These herbs are ginger, yarrow, chamomile, and hyssop. For fevers related to the flu, homeopathic remedies like belladonna, gelsemium, and oscillococcinum may also be useful.

Passionflower

Passionflower

To help reduce pain naturally, there are many herbs and supplements that can be used without the harmful side effects of acetaminophen. One of my favorite supplements for pain is MSM, methylsulfonylmethane. MSM is anti-inflammatory and safe to use in large amounts. Turmeric and its active constituent curcumin is probably one of the most popular supplements for reducing inflammation and therefore pain. These are sometimes paired with DL-phenylalanine, an amino acid that supports the production of endorphins. Endorphins are the chemicals our bodies produce naturally to reduce pain and improve mood. Other herbs for pain include kava kava, valerian, California poppy, passionflower, and white willow. All of these herbs are centrally acting like acetaminophen, which means they work on the brain to slow the transmission of pain signals from the body. Dr. Oz has also recently popularized the herb Corydalis, which has this same type of action.

If natural options like these are enough to sufficiently reduce pain and moderate amounts of acetaminophen containing medications are still needed, make sure you have sufficient amounts of these nutrients that are necessary for acetaminophen breakdown: riboflavin, glutathione, selenium, zinc, and molybdenum.